Harlem has changed immensely the past couple few of years. Whether for good or for bad depends on whom you ask. Gentrification is a word that is thrown around a lot lately, a phrase intended to either condemn or applaud the influx of cafes, bars, expensive condominiums, brand-name stores, and galleries that have opened in the Harlem community.
According to the Daily News, Harlem has become a neighborhood of change, with 21% of its residents being ‘wealthier’ than before 2013, and the community being “300% whiter” since ten years ago. Such numbers beg to be debated; how does a place like Harlem, so steeped in African American and Hispanic culture, expect to keep its unique quality when its cultural landscape is drastically changing?
One aspect that may be positively affected by the rapidly changing environment is Harlem’s art scene. For decades, Harlem has been considered a hub of African American art and culture, beginning and continuing with the Harlem Renaissance. Today, this part of the city still remains a growing cultural center, and has become a home for establishments such as the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Harlem Stage. New art galleries have begun popping up as well, including the Casa Frela Gallery and ‘Gitler & __; ‘.
These new places join the older generation of Harlem’s art scene, such as the Essie Green Galleries, which has been a celebrated center of African American art in Harlem since 1989, when it moved from Park Slope.
One differing and sobering aspect of these galleries, as opposed to their museum counterparts, is that they do not necessarily champion Harlem-based artists.
“We’re not a Harlem gallery, in terms of the clientele we have,” says Sherman Edminston, owner and founder of the Essie Green Galleries. “We’re more of a destination gallery. I would say only a small handful of our patrons come from Harlem, most others come from elsewhere in the city.”
Edminston’s gallery concentrates on so-called “Black masters,” artists such as Romare Bearden and Charles Alston, who have been known for decades as pioneers of art that defines the African American experience in America. Neither of them is necessarily considered a “Harlem-based” artist.
Such a gallery fits perfectly with the burgeoning changes of today’s Harlem, it seems. “Our success is not based on what we’re doing here,” Edminston states firmly. “We’ve been doing this for 35 years. We are recognized as being top-tier.”
The Essie Green Galleries are a unique example of a business that is not negatively impacted by the onslaught of gentrification. In that way, they are similar to their newer gallery counterparts. Gitler & _ , opened in September 2014 by its owner Avi Gitler, is an example of a new Harlem business that is positively impacted by gentrification. Originally meant to open in Bushwick, another flourishing art scene, Gitler chose Harlem due to its larger sense of community. Along with the Butcher’s Daughter and the Casa Frela galleries, Gitler & _ amp; is an establishment that was drawn to Harlem and is largely responsible for changing it
“[Gentrification] is a battle of people coming in and being able to appropriate what is here and what they are bringing,” states Edminston. “It’s a problem, yes, but it’s also the way it is.” This statement begs the question: is gentrification a positive change for Harlem? The community been under such scrutiny, what with the city’s young residents moving in while others are being forced out by rising rent prices. Across Harlem, the median sales price and household income ratio has risen substantially, with east Harlem showing the most change, with over $50,000 being the median income of the block, a.k.a. where the rich people are moving in. But it seems that this scrutiny comes with positive changes as well.
“When I began going to school, I was afraid of leaving my class at 9pm,” says Anna Motter, a student of the City College of New York. “Everyone told me to be wary of going to college in Harlem, and indeed, we often hear of theft and attempted rape in the area. But now I’m seeing all these subtle changes to the neighborhood. I’ve signed up with a yoga place right near my apartment on 145th. I feel much safer these days.”
It’s clear that the youth sees these changes as a recent improvement to the neighborhood. Older residents are more aware of the fact that these changes are not only inevitable, they have been occurring for some time.
“Harlem hasn’t been the Harlem it was when I was young. Harlem has been changing all along,” says Edminston, owner of Essie Green Galleries. “The music and the clubs and bars don’t exist today. At the same time the art that we have today didn’t exist then. When I was college-age, I don’t recall there being a gallery in Harlem. At that time, there was no Studio Museum. That was a major historic event. It is now international.”